We could learn a lot from “Lincoln”

November 1, 2012

C NOTES, a blog by George C. Wilson

This has been a very busy year and I had intended to write more often for the Mason County Press but as life often does it steered me away from some of my original intentions. As a writer finding a moment to listen to your muse can be difficult when the noise of everyday life drowns out the quiet necessary to reflect on essay worthy topics. This time out I intend to touch on two topics. The first is a movie review -a safe enough topic – at least on the surface. The second topic is set up by the first. The second topic is pure politics. Now that topic is about as safe as a steel bear trap with a hair trigger. So let’s see who I can offend and in what manner I can accomplish it

The movie Lincoln will be released on November 16th. I was fortunate enough to be invited to an advanced screening of this film on October 29th in Grand Rapids. I’m no Hollywood insider but it is likely this film will get a lot of Oscar buzz – and rightfully so. The Steven Spielberg epic touches all the right chords for winning awards. Great men on the stage of history achieving great things can be enthralling when the story is handled by one of the gifted film makers of this generation. Warning – there are spoilers in this account. Not huge spoilers and certainly anyone with a somewhat scholarly knowledge of the Lincoln administration will not have any surprises ruined here.

The performances by the primary actors in this movie were excellent. Much has already been written about Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. Acknowledged as one of the greatest actors of this age Lewis imbues Lincoln with humanity. This was not a marble statue of a man. Lincoln was a real and living man beset by doubt and dealing with tragedy in his personal life as well on the national scale. There are those who will question his portrayal because he and Spielberg decided to maintain historical accuracy in regards to Lincoln’s high register voice and western twang. This Lincoln is not the towering man with a baritone voice often played in the past by other actors. I will say honestly of all the Lincoln portrayals I have seen, and I have seen many, Lewis made me believe the 16th President of the United States was on the screen.

Some time ago when I learned that Sally Fields would be playing Mary Todd Lincoln I blanched. Gidget grew up and became an award winning actress of considerable acclaim. Truth be told, though, I personally have never really connected with her as an actress. Perhaps the fault lies with me. I will say that Fields handles the difficult assignment of playing a difficult woman with great skill. There were times she made me squirm in my seat with her tortured and anguished interpretation. Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from debilitating headaches as a result of a carriage accident. She also was clearly a depressed person with a tenuous handle on her emotions. Fields plays her as a grieving mother who lost a young son to sickness who lived in constant fear of losing her eldest son to the war. At times Mary Todd Lincoln terrorized her husband and eldest son using her explosive temper and emotional blackmail. Fields excels in recreating that part of the First Lady’s personality. Fields really shines when she shows Mary Todd Lincoln with barely concealed fangs in the role of the fiercely protective politician’s wife in the few scenes where she interacts with her husband’s detractors.

In many scenes the performance of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens overshadows his fellow performers. Jones portrays the radical abolitionist congressman as a crafty old crank. Jones shows us a man with vicious political instincts fighting for the cause of his lifetime. With a sharp tongue and a reptilian like cold stare Jones dominates the screen in a way that will likely win him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

The story of the film concentrates its focus near the end of the American Civil War and the end of Lincoln’s life. The story hinges on the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – an amendment outlawing slavery for all time and in all forms in the United States. The scene where Abraham Lincoln makes his case to his cabinet why the time is right for the amendment is riveting. Lincoln points out with tortured self-awareness that the Emancipation Proclamation was a tool of war expediency and it left him far out on a constitutional limb. He was unsure if the freedom it proclaimed could stand on its own in the peace which was likely to soon be at hand as the exhausted Southern states stumbled to the end of their fourth year in rebellion.

Using any and all means necessary Lincoln and his able Secretary of State William H. Seward, played by the great character actor David Strathairn, manipulate the House of Representatives towards a vote on the 13th Amendment. To achieve the necessary majority a dozen or more House Democrats would have to be either persuaded or somehow coopted into abstaining or voting for it. At times ethics and law were set aside in pursuit of the ultimate goal. Though the relationship between the White House and the Radical Abolitionists in Congress was strained for much of the war the allied interests marshaled all their strength to trap a segment of the Democrat House minority into supporting the bill. The scenes involving this plot line alternate between high drama and low comedy -much like politics today.

The conservative Democrats of the North were seeking an end to the bloody Civil War at all costs. They did not care to alter the Constitution to end slavery. Many cared very little for or outright hated and distrusted blacks. They wanted no part of allowing freed black men the right to vote or hold office. They wanted no part of millions of ex slaves entering the workforce as paid freemen. They had many supporters throughout the North. Northern Democrats would extend a peace offering to the Southern Secessionists without demanding the Constitution altered to outlaw slavery. Lincoln played both sides of the field on this. He was working to end slavery forever all while keeping a backdoor open to ending the war without achieving that ultimate goal. It was a delicate balancing act – one that forced him to hide the truth of barely hidden Southern peace envoys lurking near Washington from even his most trusted allies in his cabinet and congress.

Spielberg not only shows us a Lincoln with self-doubts and ethical warts but one of singular focus and tremendous political skill. It is a Lincoln known well to historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin on whose book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, this movie is in large part based. We also see a Lincoln full of charm and grace. The story telling home spun legend of our more simplistic biographies of him is on full display. Still this is a human being full of all too human foibles.

We are shown a Lincoln known for seemingly infinite patience who could be moved to strike an obdurate adult son. We are shown a Lincoln emotionally tortured by a nearly unhinged wife who he threatens with commitment to an insane asylum. We are shown perhaps America’s greatest candidate for non-secular sainthood unvarnished and raw. Ultimately, in this movie and in the pages of well researched and written history, Abraham Lincoln emerges worthy of that sainthood and our admiration.

With all that it is a scene involving Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens that sticks with me and dominates the political message to be taken from this film. The hardcore conservative Northern Democrats in Congress knew that Stevens will be speaking on behalf of bringing the 13th Amendment to a ratification vote. They conspired to antagonize him to the point where his well-known temper would get the best of him. The press in the gallery would then report on the tantrum. This would be a tantrum where they will goad Stevens into declaring that blacks should be accorded full and immediate citizenship with all the privileges of whites. It was part of Steven’s core beliefs that this be so. They counted on his radical rants eroding support for the Amendment. Even Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, did not hold such strong beliefs.

In the movie as in history Stevens managed to avoid losing his temper- for the most part. He steadfastly maintained that the 13th Amendment would only insure that all men would be equal under law and before the courts. Passing the amendment would not insure equality in all matters under heaven and in nature. He did not attach voting rights to the 13th Amendment. Nor did he call the amendment a stepping stone to official recognition that blacks were entitled to run for office, be treated the same as whites in the work place and compensated in some measure for their servitude – all beliefs that the radical abolitionists adhered to. These were concepts that Stevens and the rest of the radical Republicans would pursue to at least legislative success during Reconstruction with passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone today who would disagree with Stevens’ argument. It is an American core belief that all citizens stand equal before the law. There is one major exception being played out in our courts and in the court of public opinion, however. This is where the lesson from the film will surely aggravate a segment of the population, and quite possibly some of you reading now as I point it out.

It is fundamentally un-American to create, or to allow the continuing existence of, an exception for any person or persons in their equality as American citizens. Where is this happening? Well, recently there have been federal court decisions that have reversed portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Passed in 1996 DOMA is a federal law that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Detractors of DOMA point out that the law does create an inherently unequal treatment of a class of people. Homosexuals, they argue, have been specifically set apart as not having the right to marry.

Same sex marriage is a very hot button in American politics. It is not necessary to compare modern homosexuals to historical enslaved black Americans. They are two different things entirely. What is necessary is to recognize the concept that equality before the law can and should apply in both cases.

The arguments against same sex marriage mirror the arguments against Thaddeus Stevens’ arguments for equality of blacks. Stevens knew then that it really doesn’t matter how deep the convictions of your opponents are – and certainly the hostility towards the idea of full equality of the soon to be former slaves was deeply and widely held. Some people even had serious religion based objections to the concept. Stevens certainly would have been disappointed to know that it took a century to fully win most of the battles he was fighting. And even now the specter of racism haunts our political system.

Those hostile arguments towards equality before the law have popped up often in the 150 years since our Civil War. Jim Crow laws were enacted and defended using arguments that blacks should be held apart and be treated differently. Opponents of Women’s Suffrage used very similar arguments. The laws placing Japanese Americans in internment camps during WWII created unequal treatment under the law. It has been less than fifty years since laws preventing interracial marriage have been struck from the books – and those who argued for them tried to defend them using community standards and cultural norms as the reason for their existence.

Those arguments were bunk. But it took time to refute them. Years – just as it will take years to fight against laws limiting the rights of homosexuals to marry. As the court cases proceed the likely outcome for DOMA is total unconstitutionality. The individual state laws that mirror DOMA will be rolled back with the precedent. DOMA’s supporters will protest. It may even cause some of them to move to alter the U.S. Constitution in the attempt block same sex marriage. That is something we have never done as a nation. All our alterations of the Constitution in the area of individual rights have been to enlarge and expand those rights. It is un-American to consider reversing that long standing tradition. That is why a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a right specifically denied to some of our people will never gain enough traction to obtain passage.

So where does this leave us? Social conservative will kick and scream. They will condemn homosexuality as unholy and immoral. No doubt I have angered some with this column. Thaddeus Stevens was vilified by some of his contemporaries and to this day there are historians who pillory him for his faults and shortcomings. But on the biggest issue of his lifetime he was right and he insured through his efforts that the American core belief of equality before the law was applied correctly. I’m not comparing myself with Stevens. I am only an observer and student of history. In that role I comfortable in saying that like the conservative Northern Democrats of 1865 social conservatives of the early 21st century will eventually find themselves on the losing side of history.

There is no doubt some social conservative will cloak their arguments in States Rights. They will find allies in neo-confederates and neo-secessionists. In fact the modern Republican Party has many officials and party members who are adherents to the States Rights arguments. Lincoln and Stevens would not be welcome in the modern GOP. Such is the shifting nature of political parties. The question of whether or not an alliance of States Rights proponents and social conservatives could be a powerful enough force to reverse equality before the law as an American core belief has to be asked.

Could they reverse the march of history that traditionally sees us enlarging individual rights rather than limiting them in our system of government?

That outcome is unlikely. Sample the demographics on the issue of homosexuality. Look at the numbers of people under the age of 40 who do not believe that same sex marriage is a threat to our society. The forces allied against same sex marriage could win a few battles and maybe delay wide spread acceptance. It will be in vain for as the poet Victor Hugo noted “Nothing else in the world… not all the armies… is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” In time everything social conservatives are working on to deny their fellow Americans full equality before law will fail. Ultimately this is a major lesson we all can take from the movie Lincoln. Those who work to deny rights to our fellow citizens will fail in time. We have Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and many more great people to thank for that.

So what do you think? Did I anger some people with this column? No doubt I did. Whether I did or if you agree with me I think you should go see this film when you can. It is that good.


– George C. Wilson











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